Nostalgia is one of the great temptations of human nature. Even cavemen probably used to grunt to each other about “the good ol’ days” before this newfangled thing called “fire” was such a pain in the butt to deal with. The eternal truth, however, is that the past is usually just like the present, only dirtier. One of the dangers of nostalgia is that it blinds you to those instances where things actually are getting worse. Go ask someone who lived in Russia or China over the last century if “the arc of history bends toward justice.” But another danger is that it prevents us from appreciating when things do get better.
That’s what this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will take on as we pit “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1981) vs. “Red Sonja” (1985) in a reminder that if you’ve been surprised at how bad things are for women today, you have no idea how much worse they used to be.
If you were born after 1980, you probably still know who Bo Derek is but aren’t entirely sure why. To you, she’s this woman who occasionally shows up in a movie or on TV and everybody 10+ years older than you makes a big deal out of her. Well, you know how every so often a sexy young lass shows up in Hollywood and she becomes everyone’s obsession for 15 minutes? Bo Derek is one of the last times it lasted longer than that. She played the object of desire in a box office smash called “10” (1979) and become one of the sex goddesses of the 1980s, and that was back when being a sex goddess put you closer to a cultural icon like Marilyn Monroe and not the latest hot babe on social media.
Now, if Bo Derek had been able to act or possessed a little personal ambition, she would have followed up her breakthrough in “10” with a string of movies that either turned her into a genuine movie star or saw her crash back to earth like a meteorite. But she couldn’t act and was content to let her husband, John Derek, take the reins of her career, so Bo Derek actually only made four films in the decade following “10,” with her husband directing three of them.
One of those was “Tarzan the Ape Man,” a retelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic story that was supposedly told from the point of view of Tarzan’s love interest. The film was actually from the weirdly pervy and bizarrely incompetent point of view of director John Derek. Jane Parker (Bo Derek) travels to Africa to find her father, a famous adventurer who left her mother when Jane was still a baby. She finds James Parker (Richard Harris) and joins him and his adoring photographer, Harry Holt (John Phillip Law), on a search for…something. They start out looking for an elephant graveyard and then they’re looking for an inland sea and then the movie sort of forgets they’re looking for anything. They eventually encounter Tarzan (Miles O’Keeffe) and the Lord of the Jungle winds up having to save them from a savage tribe that really, really, really likes body paint.
And if I have to explain to anyone who Tarzan is, that would be a nostalgia-validating example of the world truly becoming a worse place.
As mentioned, they tried to claim they were putting a feminist spin on things with “Tarzan the Ape Man” but it’s no version of feminism anyone would recognize in 2017. Jane Porter spends more time biting her nails than speaking lines of dialog, trails after her father like a puppy, is threatened with rape twice, has to be repeatedly rescued, and ends the movie by abandoning the modern world because she decides a mute, illiterate, jungle dork is her soul mate…or maybe it was just his great abs. Not to mention that the only reason the movie got made or anyone wanted to see it was because it promised Bo Derek in the nude. Yes, that all passed for feminism in 1981.
Yet while the film delivers on its promised nudity, that is not the most noteworthy thing about it. Bo Derek in the buff is still quite impressive but it lacks the same impact in an age where hardcore pornography is never more than a click away on your smartphone. What makes “Tarzan the Ape Man” something you might still consider watching is that it is one of the most fascinatingly awful motion pictures ever made. As previously referenced, Bo Derek cannot act and there are plenty of scenes where that is made painfully apparent. But she’s practically a master thespian compared to Miles O’Keeffe. In fairness, he was apparently the stunt double given the role of Tarzan when the original actor dropped out but O’Keeffe can’t even walk properly. He struts through the film like he literally has a stick up his butt. The man can’t even pretend to be unconscious in a convincing manner. And despite theoretically being a stunt man, O’Keeffe was apparently so uncoordinated that all of his action scenes had to be put in slo-mo to cover it up. The climactic struggle between Tarzan and a hulking warrior looks like a couple of 8-year-olds playing pro wrestling in their living room after they had too much ADHD medicine.
But hilariously, while Derek and O’Keeffe are stinking up the screen in scenes worse than you’ll find in those skin flicks they used to run on late night Cinemax, the great Richard Harris is busting his butt like he’s doing Shakespeare in London. Harris’ portrayal of James Parker as the last of the Great White Bwannas who descended on Africa in the 19th century, a man driven to achieve greatness who also appreciates how it turns him into an utter bastard, is truly riveting. His straight forward, no winking at the camera, dramatic performance is like finding a diamond in a pile of manure. He takes Jane’s father, probably the most useless and overlooked characters in any Tarzan adaptation, and makes the viewer wish you could see more of him and less of naked Bo Derek.
Putting an incredulous bow on things is the inexplicable work of John Derek. I’ve seen a lot of movies. Some have been directed well. Some were directed poorly. I’ve never seen a film directed like “Tarzan the Ape Man.” At no point in this motion picture will you have the slightest idea of what John Derek is trying to do or why he’s doing it. Even the nude scenes with his wife, which is a creepy enough concept to begin with, make no damn sense at all. In one, the camera is so far away you can barely tell Bo Derek is naked at all. She could have been wearing a flesh colored bikini. And scenes where Jane is forcible bathed and painted white by African tribeswomen go on forever and legitimately flirt with “I Spit on Your Grave” (1978) levels of de-eroticism.
There’s a moment where James Parker is tied up and Jane is about to be raped by a hulking savage. James tells his daughter that she needs to go away, to leave her body so she won’t experience the trauma, and Harris is playing it with heartbreaking sincerity while Bo Derek is acting like she’s going to be forced to get a bad haircut. At the same time, John Derek is directing the scene like it’s some sort of a naughty sex romp, putting forth the gigantic rapist as some kind of comedic figure. It’s one of the underrated WTF scenes of all time.
But as terrible as “Tarzan the Ape Man” is, it holds your attention because you can’t believe what you’re seeing and can’t wait to see what might be coming next. The only thing you’re waiting to see with “Red Sonja” is the closing credits.
Long before studios began to look at everything as a potential franchise, “Conan the Barbarian” (1982) made such an impact on audiences that it not only garnered a sequel in 1984 but essentially a spinoff in 1985 as they slapped either a rather pedestrian red wig or a bland dye job on Brigitte Nielsen to play one of the more convoluted characters in fiction. Though she’s based on the world Robert E. Howard created for his Conan stories, Red Sonja is actually the product of comic book creators Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. They took the name and basic milieu from Howard’s work and created a hero still being published in comic books today. But nobody in Hollywood cared much about obscure comic character in the 1980s. For pete’s sake, the only Batman movie anyone had seen was with Adam West back in 1966 and that was a big screen version of the TV show. So there’s only the barest remnants from the comics in “Red Sonja.” But Howard never wrote any stories about the character either and the producers couldn’t get the rights to use the character of Conan themselves, so they basically crapped out a generic fantasy quest script and hired Arnold Schwarzenegger to play a not-Conan named Kalidor to make sure audiences would get the connection.
In the comics, Red Sonja is a mercenary warrior who picked up a sword after her family was murdered and she was raped as a girl. Vowing to bed no man unless he can defeat her in battle, she strapped on a plate mail bikini and cut a swath of violence through the Hyborian Age. In the only smart move they made, the producers of “Red Sonja” realized that is a bit too harsh of an origin story to sell to a mainstream audience. So the film skims over all that at lightning speed and we instead get Red Sonja leading a motley crew to save the world from an insane queen and an evil talisman of power.
Besides Kalidor, Sonja is joined by a child prince from a destroyed kingdom (Ernie Reyes Jr.) and the prince’s portly bodyguard (Paul L. Smith). They wander around, with Sonja being repeatedly saved by Kalidor, until finally facing off with the evil queen (Sandahl Bergman), with Kalidor again doing most of the heavy lifting.
“Red Sonja” is a terrible film but unlike “Tarzan the Ape Man,” there’s not much to say about it. “Conan the Barbarian” revived the fantasy genre and spawned a legion of sword-n-sorcery flicks, most of them cheap and awful. “Red Sonja” is as dumb, generic, and badly made as most of them. It merely has a closer connection to the source. Unlike Bo Derek, Brigitte Nielsen can act a little but is asked to do a lot more here than she can handle. Sandahl Berman chews the scenery and most of the action scenes are what you get when you take a bunch of actors and give them one day of training in pretend sword fighting. The film also makes the classic mistake of raising the stakes too high. It’s not enough for the queen to have killed Sonja’s family. No, there also has to be this magic disco ball that will destroy the world if Sonja doesn’t toss it into an even worse special effect. I suppose you can credit “Red Sonja” with having more of a sense of humor than the immediate descendants of “Conan the Barbarian” tended to have, but the half-chuckles it occasionally produces isn’t enough to make up for persistent boring suck of the rest of the film.
“Tarzan the Ape Man” takes this Throwdown because at least it is bad in an interesting way. A film student could probably get an “A” for a term paper trying to figure out what John Derek is trying to accomplish. “Red Sonja” is simply bleh, with the violence and sexuality possible in the genre turned Apdown to -2 on a scale of 1 to 10. But anyone upset over the problems actresses have in films today can look back on these two and viscerally feel the progress that’s been made. It may still be a journey of a thousand miles but at least we’ve taken a lot more than a single step.
Tarzan the Ape Man (1981)
Written by Tom Rowe.
Directed by John Derek.
Starring Bo Derek, Richard Harris, John Phillip Law, Miles O’Keeffe, Akushula Selayah, Steve Strong, Maxime Philoe, Leonard Bailey, Wilfrid Hyde-White, and C.J. the Orangutan.
Red Sonja (1985)
Written by Clive Exton and George MacDonald Fraser.
Directed by Richard Fleischer.
Starring Brigitte Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandhal Bergman, Paul L. Smith, Ernie Reyes Jr., Ronald Lacy, Pat Roach, Terry Richards, Janet Agren, Donna Osterbuhr, and Lara Lamberti.
Read the comic instead. You'll thank me.
I knew there was a reason Al Franken was a big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs.